Washington — A Democratic-led House panel examining the Trump administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic issued subpoenas Monday to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Robert Redfield for documents related to alleged political interference in the scientific work of the CDC.
The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis has been investigating claims that political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) attempted to influence reports from the CDC about the spread of the coronavirus in the spring and summer, and bullied career staff.
In mid-September, the panel requested transcribed interviews with seven officials from HHS and the CDC, as well as documents. The departments did not comply with the requests, Congressman Jim Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina who chairs the subcommittee, wrote in a letter to Azar and Redfield. Their refusal to turn over the information led to the subpoenas.
"The subpoenas were necessary because the Select Subcommittee's investigation has revealed that efforts to interfere with scientific work at CDC were far more extensive and dangerous than previously known," Clyburn said.
The subcommittee needs to obtain the documents sought in its initial request "to understand who in the Trump administration was responsible for this political pressure campaign, whether it was intended to cripple the nation's coronavirus response in a misguided effort to achieve herd immunity, and what steps must be taken to end this outrageous conduct and protect American lives," he continued.
Representative Steve Scalise, the top Republican on the subcommittee, criticized the subpoenas and said Democrats "should cease their partisan antics and instead focus on contributing to America's recovery."
"Even though witness testimony has already slammed shut the notion of any political interference in CDC scientific reports, Democrats continue to search for imaginary evidence of improper political influence in the Trump Administration's whole-of-America pandemic response," Scalise said in a statement.
According to Clyburn, the panel found that former Assistant HHS Secretary Michael Caputo, senior adviser Paul Alexander and other department officials attempted to block or alter more than a dozen scientific reports from the CDC between May and September.
The subcommittee also found that political appointees in June and July attempted to block or change a report on hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug President Trump lauded as a treatment for the coronavirus. The Food and Drug Administration has cautioned against the use of hydroxychloroquine outside of hospitals due to risk of heart rhythm problems and found the drug was unlikely to be effective in treating COVID-19.
Emails obtained by the panel also found Caputo, who took a leave of absence from the department in September, "bullied and retaliated" against CDC officials who spoke to the press without his permission. Clyburn said senior administration officials, including Redfield, were aware of Caputo's behavior but did not take action until the subcommittee started its investigation.
Redfield allegedly ordered his staff to delete an email from Alexander asking the CDC to change information in a report on the effect of the coronavirus on children.
Democrats have criticized the Trump administration for its response to the coronavirus pandemic, including efforts by Mr. Trump to downplay the severity of the virus.